Originally: Haitians pack polls for presidential election
Haitians streamed to polling stations before dawn Tuesday to vote in presidential and parliamentary elections they hoped would improve conditions in the hemisphere’s poorest country.
“Haiti’s future depends on this vote,” Jacques Bernard, director general of the Electoral Council, said in a speech Monday urging Haitians to participate. “Good elections are the only solution to saving our nation.”
Voter turnout for the first elections since an armed revolt ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide two years ago was high, said Stephane LaCroix, a spokesman for the Electoral Council. About 3 1/2 million of Haiti’s 8.3 million peo-ple were registered to vote.
Despite concerns that the election would be marred by the rampant violence that has claimed hundreds of lives here, calm reigned — under the watch of 9,000 United Nations peacekeepers and police and 5,000 Haitian police.
Not all went smoothly. Some polling places opened late. Frustrated voters stood in line for hours. Many were un-certain they were at the right station.
Asked how the thousands of voters lined up at the Lycee Petion-Ville station could figure out whether they were in the right place, poll worker Richard Duverge, 28, responded, “We were not trained for this problem.”
“I really don’t want to go home without doing this,” said Evelyn Baptista, 66. After several hours, she was told she was at the wrong station. No one could tell her where she was supposed to go.
“The organization is not ideal,” said John Merrill, a U.S. election observer with the Haiti Democracy Project, an independent research group based in Washington that promotes a stable government in Haiti. Merrill has monitored six previous Haitian elections.
The Electoral Council announced late Tuesday that polling stations, scheduled to close at 4 p.m., would stay open as late as needed to accommodate everyone in line.
Logistical problems beset the election from the start. Originally scheduled for November, the vote was postponed four times. Among the reasons: slow voter registration, the late arrival of voter identification cards and disputes over the placement and number of polling stations. About $75 million was spent orchestrating the vote, the Electoral Council said.
Merrill said the chaos could be seen in a positive light. “You could say this election is a victim of its own success,” he said. “The poll workers were overwhelmed. But the good news is, people were motivated and not scared.”
To maintain security, U.N. peacekeepers increased patrols Tuesday and added checkpoints along roads, especially around the capital’s volatile Cite Soleil slum.
Official results are not expected for days. According to Gallup Polls, the front-runner for president before the elec-tion was Rene Preval, 63, an agronomist and protege of Aristide. The former leader is in exile in South Africa. In Cite Soleil, a slogan spray painted on the sides of the crumbling buildings reads “Preval = Aristide,” referring to hopes among the ex-leader’s supporters that if elected Preval would permit Aristide to return.
Other top contenders among the 33 presidential candidates: Charles Henri Baker, 50, whose family runs factories in the assembly-for-export industry, and Leslie Manigat, 75, who was president for five months in 1988 before being ousted by the army.
Voters also were choosing among hundreds of candidates for 129 legislative seats.
If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, a runoff between the two highest vote-getters will be March 19.
The long lines and logistical problems didn’t deter voters, who thronged to the 800 polling stations. Augustine Monique, 48, in line for two hours at a station that had still not opened, said she felt achy and annoyed but would wait as long as it took.
“I am waiting for something,” she explained with a smile, turning over her laminated voter ID card with a hint of pride. “A better life.”
Harman is Latin America correspondent for USA TODAY and The Christian Science Monitor